UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank got a couple of tough questions about free speech during an hour-long conference call with more than 6,000 alumni Monday.
Her responses were impressive and should reassure conservatives that the state’s flagship university is committed to encouraging diverse views on campus.
A Cedarburg father said his freshman son, “a young man of color who is very conservative,” was ridiculed for “not being true to his color and his race.”
“He and other students I talk to feel like your institution shuts down their voices unless they are of the political correctness that the university seems to support,” the father told Blank during a “telephone town hall.”
Another caller, Hartford Mayor Tim Michalak, said he’s a proud UW alumnus, but none of his seven children want to go to Madison “because of the perceived liberal bias.”
“I’m very curious as to what you do as a chancellor to promote — not tolerate, not accept, but promote — diversity of thought?” Michalak asked.
Blank apologized to the first father for his son’s bad experience and referred him to help in the dorms against bullying. Then she emphatically endorsed a university climate where everyone should feel comfortable speaking their minds — and be willing to listen to others.
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“I have been as clear as I can be that any university is a place that has to welcome people of all backgrounds, all opinions, all experiences, and needs to be free to speak about that,” Blank said.
She cited examples of diverse speakers and professors, including economists from Republican administrations. The vast majority of UW faculty — chemists, engineers, mathematicians, and business professors — don’t think of themselves as politically inclined in their teaching or research. Instead, they intently focus on the issues of their work. The university shouldn’t be mischaracterized as a highly political organization.
“Now all of that said, I know all of the complaints about Madison as being way too liberal,” Blank said. “And we surely have some liberal professors. But we also have some real diversity.”
Any student looking for diversity of thought or like-minded people is going to find that on Madison’s big campus, she insisted. Other universities have experienced violent protests over speakers. But UW-Madison has succeeded in encouraging open and civil debates.
“Occasionally we get protests,” she said. “We have tried to manage those protests effectively. We have not had any speaker shut down. We’ve had a few speakers delayed by a little bit until the protesters left the room. But I’m quite serious about making this a campus where all are welcome and included.”
Blank’s forceful comments should help allay concern that UW-Madison is restricting conservative views.